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Internet infrastructure companies must help keep extremists offline

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Before launching his shooting rampage at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, 21-year-old Patrick Crusius posted an anti-immigrant screed on the online messaging board 8chan. 8chan has become a popular vehicle for extremists to share hateful content and glorify mass shootings. After the massacre in El Paso U.S. policymakers and tech companies are finally taking notice.

Last Friday, the White House hosted a meeting with tech companies to discuss violent online extremism. President Trump also called upon the Justice Department to work with local, state, and federal agencies as well as tech companies to develop tools that can help detect potential mass shooters. Additional hearings are planned by the House Homeland Security Committee, which has asked 8chan founder Jim Watkins to testify about the proliferation of extremist content.

The El Paso attack was not the only recent extremist incident with links to 8chan. Just prior to the March attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, Brenton Tarrant posted his manifesto on Twitter and 8chan. The 8chan post also reportedly contained a link to Tarrant’s Facebook page, where he later broadcasted the shootings using Facebook Live. A month later, John T. Earnest posted an anti-Semitic manifesto on 8chan prior to initiating his attack at a synagogue in Poway, Calif.

8chan is a web forum and message board website that claims to be committed to anti-censorship and free speech. Although a wide range of topics are discussed on the forum, the site has become a gathering place for far-right extremists and neo-Nazis due to the site’s lax content policies and refusal to remove extremist content and violent rhetoric.

In the wake of El Paso however, Cloudflare and other website infrastructure companies have demonstrated that it is possible to combat such inaction and prevent the spread of extremist content.

On Aug. 5, the CEO of Cloudflare, a website security company, wrote that it would terminate 8chan as a customer, stating that “we [the company] draw the line at platforms that have demonstrated they directly inspire tragic events and are lawless by design. 8chan has crossed that line.” Cloudflare has done this once before, cutting ties with the neo-Nazi news site, The Daily Stormer. (Though, Cloudflare has not consistently applied this policy with other far-right extremist websites.) Following Cloudflare’s decision, 8chan administrators moved the site over to Epik-owned BitMitigate, which also services The Daily Stormer and Gab, a right-wing social media platform. Epik has also touted that it is in ardent supporter of free speech to justify its provision of services to far-right extremists and neo-Nazis.

As it turns out, Epik/BitMitigate was purchasing services from a larger infrastructure-as-a-service provider called Voxility. Voxility was notified of Epik/BitMitigate’s provision of services to 8chan, and made the move to sever ties with Epik/BitMitigate—making it that much more difficult for the so-called pro-free speech company to conduct its operations. Voxility’s decision effectively helped to prevent ongoing support for 8chan, taking the site offline.

Voxility’s decision serves as a useful example of how a business-to-business (B2B) tech company can help prevent the spread of hateful, extremist content by denying critical services to other firms. The case with 8chan has revealed that in spite of a company’s insistence on free speech and absolute refusal to remove any content—even when its hateful and linked to violent acts—most tech firms rely on others in order to operate on online. The Internet is effectively a network of networks, an ecosystem where a reliance on others can be leveraged to mitigate the most extreme and dangerous websites. Internet infrastructure providers, such as Voxility, can and should have a role in removing extremist and terrorist material online.

U.S. policymakers and other lawmakers across the globe must consider B2B tech firms such as cloud infrastructure providers as they consider new rules and regulations for the industry. Clearly, their services can be misused by extremist individuals and even the tech companies that support their views and hateful speech. Truly effective counter-extremism legislation and regulation must consider every aspect of Internet services that can be manipulated to promote devastating violence.

David Ibsen is executive director of the Counter Extremism Project, aninternational policy organization formed by former world leaders and diplomats to combat the growing threat from extremist ideologies. Follow him@dlibsen

Tags Donald Trump online extremist content

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